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Bombs Away

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K-19: The Widowmaker
Paramount Pictures

My first thought after seeing K-19: The Widowmaker was "How?"

How could Hollywood's finest -- led by arty exploitation director Kathryn Bigelow, director of the Zen surfer-action flick Point Break, the vampire shoot-'em-up Near Dark, and the rape-as-spectator sport millennial gewgaw Strange Days -- spend more than $100 million over a period of years without one person whispering, "Excuse me, but as a cinema professional, I think it wise to have a third act."

So skimpy is this K-19 that just talking about it is problematic; by giving away its setup, you've given away the movie. And so spoiler-leery readers should stop here and maybe consider saving money by renting The Bedford Incident, a superior edge-of-Armageddon thriller complete with beginning, middle and end -- and Richard Widmark to boot.

"Inspired by a true story" (almost always a negative tip-off), K-19 is set in 1961 and the golden age of Mutually Assured Destruction. Russian top brass, fretting over the fact that they can't blow up the world as many times as the U.S., commission an ill-prepared nuclear sub for general spy purposes. On-board are two captains, one lovable (Liam Neeson), the other a tight-ass jerk (Harrison Ford), and an unstable reactor.

The reactor blows, sailors get irradiated and die horribly while trying to stop their boat from becoming a trigger for World War III as their captains glower and argue points. Meanwhile, the word "hero" is muttered as frequently as possible, causing more cynical minds to question craven hopes of post9-11 Pavlovian instant response.

Still, Bigelow certainly knows her way around those dashing neo-DePlama dolly shots and post-Fincherian, CGI-assisted gambols through solid steel walls, and, to be less smarmy, has an admirable sense of the sheer gravity-bound physicality of, for example, a submarine crashing thorough ice. Along with the fatherly appearance of Liam Neeson, who can emote so sweetly that he almost made The Phantom Menace seem less so, Bigelow's blustery technique keeps things thrumming along in a pleasurably mindless, testosterone-heavy manner (representative line: "It's never difficult to do one's duty!") until the movie forgets to have that third act lamented upon earlier.

K-19 is perversely stingy in sharing information and/or logic that would help us forgive its many and constant flaws. A muddled confrontation with an American ship and a barely-there subplot that might have made dramatic the Russians' willingness to nuke their own sub are skirted over quickly, as though Bigelow feels herself above the honest pleasures of pulp.

Ultimately, the movie's blend of historical fact, action-movie schematics and the need to make its $20 million lead into a last-minute hero, positions K-19 in a misty-moral no man's land somewhere between the vacuum-packed sacrifices of Black Hawk Down and the thick-headed jingoism of Sum of All Fears. Except it's not nearly the very guilty pleasure such a description might suggest.

-- Ian Grey

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